At a rural high school south of Boston, Zach Falconer leads a classroom of teenage boys through a visualization exercise. An athletic twenty-something, Falconer is old enough to sound authoritative to high schoolers yet young enough to look cool in loose khaki cargo pants.
"Picture the woman you care about the most — your mother, a sister, an aunt, a female friend — being assaulted by a man," he says. "Imagine a third person in the scene, a bystander who sees what’s going on, is in a position to do something about what’s happening to the woman you care about. But the bystander watches and walks away."
Falconer pauses, then asks: "How does it make you feel?"
"Helpless," says one student.
"Angry," says another, "not only at the person who was assaulting, but also the person who walked away." Others nod.
"Every woman you see on the street, every woman you see in the hallway, has somebody who feels about her the way you feel about the woman in your life," says Falconer, who goes on to discuss ways the bystander could have intervened.
Falconer, a training specialist with Boston-based Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), is part of a growing cadre of male activists determined to help reduce rape and other forms of male violence against women by educating, challenging — and ultimately motivating — men and boys.
Centered at Northeastern University in Boston, MVP runs programs in Massachusetts public schools and college campuses and organizations nationally and internationally. The program has a multiracial coed staff that works with both sexes, but it is the work of male facilitators with male students that represents a growing trend in rape prevention: changing attitudes and behavior of males.
MVP uses a "playbook" of hypothetical scenarios, exercises and discussion questions to promote critical thinking about men’s violence against women. MVP and a growing number of programs like it aim ultimately to change social norms that keep women in fear.
"Americans boast about having the freest country, yet women can’t even go out for a walk at night," notes Jackson Katz, who developed MVP at Northeastern and still employs its principles in his own consulting business, MVP Strategies.
The violation of this basic human right is the focus of the annual "Take Back the Night" rallies that various feminist organizations have sponsored for decades. "Katz and his colleagues challenge men and boys to face the striking inequity such campaigns address. "The threat of male violence," he points out, "orders the daily life of women and girls in the United States."
The Language of Rape
Rape statistics in the U.S. vary widely, depending on who is gathering the data and how. For instance, the U.S. Justice Department’s 2000 National Crime Victimization Survey reports 246,180 rapes or sexual assaults against women, roughly one every two minutes.
But the 1998 federal study National Violence Against Women calculates 876,064 rapes annually, and that report calls the figure low because its telephone-based research did not question minors, the homeless, institutionalized persons or those without phones.
"What’s happening that so many men in our culture are growing up to be violent and sexually assaulting?" asks Anne Marie Aikins, a Canadian therapist with 20 years’ experience in dealing with rape crisis. Last year, she published the curriculum Authentic Boys/Safer Girls: A Teacher’s Guide to Helping Boys Break Free of Gender Stereotyping. "What do men have to do to avoid this kind of behavior when they grow up?"
Aikins’ curriculum is one of many recent innovative programs that seek to prevent rape by going at the root causes: social structures and attitudes that tolerate — even promote — sexual assault.
Activists describe North American society as a culture desensitized toward violence, where boys are socialized with harmful attitudes toward sex and women, and where the criminal justice system and popular attitudes alike place the blame for rape on the victims.
" ‘What was she wearing? What was she doing?’"says MVP director Jeff O’Brien, citing common reactions to a rape incident. "Why are the first 10 questions about her behavior? Why don’t we talk about him?"
The "language of rape" reveals much about ingrained societal attitudes toward women. From newspaper reports to everyday speech, accounts of sexual assault tend to use the passive voice: "A woman was raped last night," rather than "A man raped a woman last night."
Such wording masks the reality that 99 percent of those arrested for forcible rape are male, according to the 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics report Sex Offenses and Offenders. Similarly, abstract references such as "incidence of rape," "date rape" and "campus rape" lend a gender-neutral tone that activists are quick to challenge.
"We call it what it is — men’s violence against women," says Falconer.
"This is about men’s behavior," Aikins concurs. "Women don’t control that and can’t."
Images of violent masculinity in the fine arts and popular media likewise contribute to the "culture of rape," activists note.
Rape scenes have a prominent place in Western literature and art — from the frequent ravishments in Greco-Roman mythology to the legendary "Rape of the Sabine Women" by Romulus and his cohorts, as portrayed in numerous Renaissance and Enlightenment masterworks. Revering these depictions as art without an accompanying critique of victims’ pain or men’s violence can imply that rape is normal.
For a more recent example, the famous scene in Gone With The Wind in which Rhett Butler rapes Scarlett O’Hara, only to have her fall in love with him, perpetuates the myth that women want men to overpower them sexually, even when they resist.
Violent masculinity, observes Jackson Katz, is a major motif of contemporary entertainment. Male action heroes are consistently portrayed as cool, muscular, well-armed loners without family ties, promiscuous desperados who resort to violence as the first response to all conflict situations. Many other male celebrity figures fit this mold as well.
In Tough Guise, a video about violent masculinity, Katz demonstrates how media have intensified the stereotype in the last few decades. He contrasts footage of generally tubby professional wrestlers of the 1960s, for example, with today’s hardbodied wrestlers with names like Stone Cold and The Undertaker.
The trend is also reflected in the toys marketed to boys: The G.I. Joe of the 1960s had a relatively average physique, compared to the hyper-muscles of the current version.
Similarly, the "Star Wars" action figures produced in the 1990s are much more muscular than their 1970s counterparts. The pressure for boys to "bulk up" and assert physical prowess is reaching into lower and lower grades.
The Pyramid of Abuse
To illustrate the prevalence of violence against women, MVP and other programs emphasize the more subtle forms of abuse that are widely tolerated but actually lay the foundation for rape and sexual assault.
MVP identifies 12 levels in its "Pyramid of Abuse," with sexist jokes at the base and escalating in severity through demeaning language, objectification and stereotyping up to unwanted sexual advances and rape, with murder at the apex.
The pyramid reflects a philosophy that every action that degrades or victimizes women essentially "rapes" their integrity and worth as a human being.
The Washington, D.C., group Men Can Stop Rape (MCSR) employs a similar idea in its "Continuum of Harm to Women" exercise. Leading a coed group of Methodist youth visiting Washington from Iowa, the organization’s Neil Irvin asks the teens to discuss a series of beliefs or attitudes about women and then categorize them along a continuum ranging from most harmful to not harmful at all.
Tall and thin, with dreadlocks and a mischievous smile, Irvin reads an example from the attitude list: "Believing that when a woman/girl says no to sex, you just have to push a little harder." He then invites the students to respond.
"They take away the woman’s decision," says a young woman. "It’s two people doing one thing, so if you take away one person’s decision, it’s rape."
But a male classmate sees it differently. "She may just be fooling around," says the husky youth in buzz cut, jacket and tie. "She could be playing hard to get."
Several young women acknowledge that problems can arise if "no" becomes negotiable in some circumstances — for example, with petting — and not others.
"If a woman’s going to say no," says one young woman, "she should mean it, because otherwise she’s going to confuse a guy. But he should assume she means it."
"It kind of depends on the situation," replies another. "How far are you trying to go?"
The comments prompt strong reactions.
"If ‘no’ doesn’t mean no," asks a young man, "then what word does mean no?"
A young woman shoots back, "When a girl says no in that situation, men should accept no."
The group puts the attitude in the "most harmful" category. Other examples range from honking or whistling at women to a boyfriend’s reference to his girlfriend as "my bitch," all the way up to date rape and stranger rape.
"Each of the attitudes and behaviors and beliefs on the continuum sends a message to women and to men that somehow women and girls are less worthy of respect, less valued, even less human than men and boys," says Jonathan Stillerman, co-director of MCSR. "It becomes much easier to do harm to a particular group of people when we see them as less valued."
The view that the sexual assault of any woman sends a message of intimidation to all women has fueled the effort to include gender as a protected category in state and federal hate crime statutes.
"Sexual assault is about being female, period, and therefore should be recognized as a hate crime," says Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, one of the oldest such organizations, incorporated in 1972. "You are targeted by virtue of being a woman, you are at risk by virtue of being a woman. It’s not about who you are or what you’re doing or where you are."
Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have hate-crime statutes, and more than half of these include gender as a protected category, says Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.
Initiatives under way in a number of states seek to establish, expand or strengthen gender-violence provisions. A comprehensive federal hate crime law that would add gender, as well as sexual orientation and disability, to protected categories was under consideration in Congress during the 2001-2 session.
Because of the intimate nature of the violation and the shame and fear it brings upon the victims, rape is a particularly effective tool of political terror, as illustrated in Kosovo in the mid-1990s.
Serbian Christian forces used rape — even established "rape camps" — to systematically humiliate and dehumanize civilian Bosnian Muslim girls and women. The shame surrounding rape in Kosovar culture is so profound that NATO investigators found many victims unwilling to talk about the crimes. The same code of silence prevails in North America, where advocates say the vast majority of rapes — perhaps as many as 90 percent — go unreported.
By teaching young men first to recognize violent attitudes and behavior toward women and then to challenge offenses as they occur, Men Can Stop Rape and similar programs aim to erode tolerance of rape.
Part of the process involves confronting the erroneous perception of rape as a crime of "desire." Whether it’s a boyfriend’s overruling his girlfriend’s objections to force sex or an armed stranger’s attacking a woman in her bedroom, both are acts of violence that deny a woman’s right to control her body.
"For a lot of men, passion and power are interwoven in a way," says Rus Ervin Funk, campus organizer for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Being in control has become eroticized."
In seminars, Funk guides participants to define sexual assault as unwanted sexual contact, then he gives them a scenario: A heterosexual couple are kissing and having a good time, when the male touches the woman’s breasts. She says no and brushes his hand away but continues kissing him.
If the male touches her breasts again, Funk explains, it’s sexual assault because it’s unwanted. "And of course, the room explodes with objections," says Funk, because most heterosexual men have crossed sexual boundaries in similar ways.
"Any man is capable of choosing not to listen to a woman when she says no," he notes, "and many of us would agree there have been times when we haven’t listened."
"Young men," adds Jonathan Stillerman, "often go about proving that they’re real men in ways that can involve violence — whether it’s pressuring someone to have sex, whether it’s verbal abuse, physical violence, or all sorts of other risk-taking behaviors, like having unprotected sex — that puts themselves and others in jeopardy."
MCSR confronts the attitudes that undergird these behaviors by emphasizing traditional aspects of masculinity — strength, independence, confidence, and so on — in a positive context.
"Our goal is really to redefine manhood and what it means to be a strong man in ways that allow men to be compassionate and loving and confident and supportive of each other as well as of women," Stillerman says.
The group’s "Strength Training Program" has several components, including a series of "Awareness-to-Action Workshops" and "Men of Strength Clubs." The semester-long clubs give young men not only a structure in which to explore the connection between masculinity and violence, but also a chance to put that knowledge to use in the community through a service project.
For example, some clubs have taped men in their communities reflecting on issues of strength and masculinity for a video montage that can be shared with others. Another project asks young men to take photos depicting strength and masculinity as they see it in their lives for a gallery of images MCSR is compiling. Another group recruited friends to join them in walking behind an MCSR banner at a "Take Back the Night" rally.
"Our goal," says Stillerman, "is really to get them not just to learn about these issues but to become visible allies in the community and begin to create a peer culture that is supportive of men supporting girls and women."
The latest and most visible initiative of the Strength Training Program is a series of posters displayed in high schools, at bus stops and on buses around Washington. As part of the campaign, Men Can Stop Rape provided guidebooks to school personnel and printed a magazine for youth.
Four of the five posters show a heterosexual couple in a tender embrace, with the young man affirming his ability to choose sexual responsibility.
One poster reads, "My strength is not for hurting … so when I wanted to and she didn’t, we didn’t." Variations on the theme include "My strength is not for hurting … so when I wasn’t sure how she felt, I asked" and "My strength is not for hurting … so when she said no, I said okay."
The campaign embodies Men Can Stop Rape’s core values of sending a positive message about masculinity while at the same time squarely addressing the issues of men’s violence and men’s responsibility, Stillerman says.
"We cannot ignore or underestimate the extent to which men can be violent," he explains, "but at the same time we have to acknowledge men’s capacity to be allies and to speak up for what’s right and to be supportive of women."
In taking this approach, activists are careful to avoid the traditional characterization of men as defenders of the "weaker sex." "When I envision a culture without rape, it’s a culture that embraces equality," says curriculum developer Anne Marie Aikins.
"This is about men and women working in partnership, not men doing for women or protecting women," adds Rus Irvin Funk. "This isn’t about what men can do for women; this is about what men need to do for men."